***4.5 stars out of 5***
“The Mississippi Delta is not always dark with rain. Some autumn mornings, the sun rises over Moon Lake, or Eagle, or Choctaw, or Blue, or Roebuck, all the wide, deep waters of the state, and when it does, its dawn is as rosy with promise and hope as any other.”
Scene of the original Wolf Whistle that inspired this novel.
It is sometimes hard to comprehend such racism, such hate existing in a place capable of so much beauty. I would like to think that the allure of the natural world would dissolve the barbed wire from around the hearts of those so intent on holding onto archaic intolerance. This story is set in 1955, and maybe we are now in the present day further along towards realizing Dr. Martin King’s fervent hope: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
North Carolina and Virginia, two states that seceded from the Union, actually cast their ballets and their electoral college votes to Barack Obama. Heartening for sure, but it was still disheartening for me as I travel through the red states to hear most of the jokes told about Obama still revolve around the color of his skin. Words are used that hit my eardrums like the sound of a whip splitting flesh. But then we can not worry about those people; unfortunately, they are lost, but we have a chance with the young, agile minds of the children who have not been tainted by centuries of old prejudices.
Is there anything more sad than a child throwing a punch and an insult that originated from the fist and tongue of an ancestor long dead?
Lewis Nordan carried around the events of 1955 in his heart for the rest of his life. When Emmett Till, a young black man was murdered in the Mississippi Delta, Nordan was fifteen years old. Certainly fifteen is one of those pivotal years in any man’s life when you are caught between seeing the man you hope to be, but are still snagged by the childish enthusiasms of a boy. As he watched two white men be convicted for the murder, he couldn’t shake off the fact that the reasons for killing another human being could be so insignificant.
As insignificant as wolf whistling at a pretty, white woman may be, this awakens every primal fear in the hearts of men who can’t understand that a boy that is black or a boy that is white are simply just boys learning how to be men. A white boy who wolf whistles at a pretty married woman might get a cuff to the back of the head, but a black boy...well...he has to die. Festering hate blossoms out of misconceived notions and are handed off from generation to generation, like a baton that keeps the holder circling around back to the past. Racism is a ball of despair, rage, and self doubt that is passed from father to son. It may begin as a BB in the belly of a boy, but by the time he is a man and weighed down with his own insecurities, that BB has grown to the size of a basketball, scorching his guts and putting a blaze in his eyes that sees someone else as the cause of all his problems.
Solon is poor white trash, but he sees himself as higher on the evolutionary ladder than a black boy like Bobo. When Solon overhears the catcall that Bobo makes towards Sally Anne, wife of the local aristocratic (such as it is) Lord Montbeclair, he decides he is affronted and that Lord Montbeclair should know about this. He also sees that Bobo has a picture of a white woman in his wallet, and he makes an epic jump in logic to believe that the picture is of Sally Anne.
The photo is of Hedy Lamarr, but then Solon has already shown that he sees the world slightly blurred, in soft focus, where all black men look alike and all attractive white women have the same face.
On the polar opposite side of the scale is Alice Conroy, the local school teacher, who is trying to make a difference in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. She is trying to expand the minds of her students so they don’t feel trapped or small, so that they can make their own decisions and be a source of change. Alice is trying to move a boulder uphill; still she feels the stone move ever so slightly from time to time. The problem of course is that she is fighting a lonely battle, and soon she will find it easier to teach somewhere else. She can produce a mound of evidence to prove that racism has no true basis to continue to exist; unfortunately, people insist on nursing the flames of their own prejudices.
She sees a drowned black child floating in a raindrop.
Lord Montbeclair may have some money, but his wife is too young and too pretty for him. He knows he ain’t worth a damn except for what the sturdiness of the walls of his ancestral home convey and the reputations of those ancestors that have preceded him give him. He has some education, but whatever benefits he has from that higher learning have been drowned in the amber of alcohol. It doesn’t take much for Solon to convince Montbeclair that his honor has been sullied.
It doesn’t go well.
Bobo, while dying from a gunshot wound that dislocates his eye, can still see events unfolding.
"Through the demon eye he saw Solon, tense behind the steering wheel, holding the truck on its true course until he reached the safety of the other side, rain still falling like pennies from heaven, dirty copper, the headlights, demon eyes themselves, laying beams like gangplanks on a pirate ship."
It must be disappointing for Bobo to die so ineptly, by the hands of men unworthy of the task and incapable of understanding the true significance of what they do.
Lewis Nordan R.I.P.
Mike Sullivan has been advocating that I read Lewis Nordan for a long time. He is quite possibly Nordan’s greatest fan among a legion of readers who have sought out Nordan’s books. I was surprised to see that Mike has not written a review of this book, but then sometimes books are too dear to even attempt to review. Nordan has put together a heady mix of cultural heritage, unexpected humor, and more than a drop of magic. We can only hope that Alice has left enough pieces of herself in the minds of her fourth grade class to influence their futures. We can only hope that men like Solon and Montbeclair are slowly becoming extinct with each passing generation. What has been bred in has to be bred out.
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